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Monday, November 4, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Down and Dirty Pictures

Although I quite enjoyed Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, one of the criticisms I had of it was that it drifted a little too far into gossipy territory, devoting more time than necessary to the bed-hopping that accompanied the filmmaking of Hollywood's brief auteur era. His follow-up book, Down and Dirty Pictures, does not expend a lot of time going into the romantic ins and outs of its sprawling cast of characters, which is to its credit, but it is lacking in something that made Easy Riders so successful: the advantage of hindsight. Easy Riders was written well over a decade after the end of the era it explored, while Down and Dirty Pictures tells a story that isn't quite finished yet, which makes parts of it - particularly the somewhat gleeful tone charting Harvey Weinstein's fall from grace - seem a bit shortsighted.

Down and Dirty Pictures ostensibly explores two facets of the 1990s indie industry: the growing influence of the Sundance Film Festival, and the growing power of Miramax. I say "ostensibly" because, though the book starts out by dividing its time almost equally between the two powerhouses of the independent film movement, by the end Sundance has disappeared almost completely from the narrative. To be honest, Miramax almost disappears, too - Biskind's book is really all about Weinstein, his rise, his various abuses of power, his megalomania, and then his supposed decline. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Weinstein is a fascinating figure whose influence on the independent film industry and the Oscar game was and remains great, and he's probably the closest thing we have now to the old-school film moguls like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Harry Cohn, people who defined Hollywood's golden age. He's responsible for a lot of positive things, such as a place being made at the table for foreign fare and oddities with a limited potential audience, but he's responsible for some negative things as well, like the transformation of independent films into "independent" films, the transformation of film festivals into acquisition bloodbaths, and the increasing insanity of Oscar season, which every year becomes a little bit less about the quality of the work and a little bit more about the quality and intensity of the campaign. Weinstein is a notoriously prickly character, often affectionately ribbed by the stars who win big thanks in part to his skill at selling movies, depicted here as a veritable monster who terrorized his staff and the filmmakers whose works he was desperate to acquire, and whose mouth, when not busy being stuffed with food, is used solely to scream at people.

But, if you've followed Hollywood goings on even in passing over the last two decades, you kind of expect Weinstein to come off badly. It's certainly no secret that he's a difficult person or that his relationship with filmmakers is complicated - he promotes the hell out of films he believes in, films which in other hands might have ended up dead in the water, but he's known as "Harvey Scissorhands" for a reason. What is surprising is how badly Robert Redford comes off. As recounted by Biskind, the Sundance Film Festival is something which took off almost in spite of Redford, who is depicted as a control freak when he's interested in something, and a control freak even after he's lost interest in something, leaving it to stagnate while he does other things and refuses to hand over the reigns to anyone else. The corporate culture at Sundance is characterized as being the victim of Redford's caprices, with various temporary favorites being given control only to find themselves frozen out by Redford later on, the festival a means of subsidizing a failed ski resort. Although most of the sources cited in this particular narrative are scorned former Sundance employees, there's also a fair bit of bitterness from Steven Soderbergh, once the poster boy for Sundance thanks to the success of sex, lies and videotape, whose subsequent dealings with Redford on the film King of the Hill left him disillusioned and angry. There's a lot of interesting territory to be mined from the Sundance story, but Down and Dirty Pictures really only scratches the surface, turning away from Sundance over and over again in order to focus on the more volatile story of Miramax and Weinstein.

Although it has some shortcomings, Down and Dirty Pictures is a hugely entertaining read. It suffers from the fact that it doesn't know the true end of its story yet - Weinstein had a brief decline in power in the mid-00's, but has since rebounded pretty thoroughly under the banner of the Weinstein Company, responsible for Best Picture winners The King's Speech and The Artist, in addition to many others - but it does an excellent job at showing the way that the industry evolved over the course of about a decade. Biskind, obviously, has no particular fondness for Weinstein, making frequent reference to his weight (pretty much every time he appears in the book, he's eating something), and suggesting that his animus towards filmmakers is as a result of him being a frustrated would-be director himself. What's surprising, especially in light of the gossipy nature of Biskind's previous book and the general efforts he makes in this one to portray Weinstein as an absolutely disgusting human being, is that there's absolutely no reference made to any of the many rumors of Weinstein's casting couch negotiations. In leaving that out, Biskind shows remarkable restraint, though the book is already pretty packed as it charts the changing relationship between independent films and Hollywood (and, by extension, audiences). I don't think it can be considered the definitive telling of the independent film movement, but it's definitely a solid primer.

Next Month: Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood

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